Do you want a 4K monitor but don’t know where to start? Get going with our in-depth guide
There’s never been a better time to get involved with 4K. This high-resolution standard is the benchmark for the world’s best PC games, and having a 4K screen doesn’t just mean top-notch gaming – it means better work and improved movies, too.
Higher refresh rates are on the horizon, prices are dropping, and it’s not just about PCs – consoles are exploring 4K, too.
It can be tricky to know where to start, though; even keen techies can find it tricky to understand the terminology, and it pays to do your research when you’re spending so much cash.
That’s where we can help. We’ve explored latest 4K panels to explain exactly what makes them tick, highlighted common pitfalls, and chosen 4k monitors that are perfect for work, play, and everything in between.
Table of contents
The Big Picture on 4K
Let’s start with 4K itself. The term 4K refers to the screen’s resolution – the number of pixels that produce its image. 4K screens have a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160, which means more than eight million pixels are needed to build these monitors.
That’s a far cry from 1080p, which requires just over two million pixels, or 2,560 x 1440, which needs about 3.6 million pixels.
The increased pixel count makes a huge difference. Games are sharper and fit more onto the screen, and Blu-ray movies show off more depth and detail.
4K screens are great for work, too: the extra screen real estate makes it easier to multi-task, and designers, video professionals, and photo editors can use the improved detail for pin-point accuracy.
These high-resolution panels are tempting, but the increased pixel count means there’s more to consider before taking the plunge. Many of these factors are unique to 4K, too – if you’ve bought 1080p panels in the past, then these issues just wouldn’t have mattered.
Take Scaling, for example. This is the term for a process that operating systems and applications use to make text and graphics easier to see on screens with ultra-high resolutions. The increased pixel count of 4K makes everything on a screen too tiny if it’s rendered at its standard size, so scaling makes everything larger. It makes everything easier to see, and the increased number of pixels makes text and graphics sharper and smoother.
Windows 10 uses scaling that can be modified – so if you want smaller text that’s still easy to read, that’s possible, or you can make the text huge if your eyesight isn’t as good.
Mac OS X has similar options, and most third-party applications now scale to 4K too.
If you’re using mainstream operating systems and applications, you’ll be fine with a 4K screen. However, if you want to use Linux or more obscure software, then we’d check to see what kind of scaling support is included – it’s no good buying a screen and then finding that your software doesn’t scale well.
4K screens drive more pixels, which mean you’ll need to get to grips the increased graphical demands of 4K, too.
It boils down to a few key rules. If you’ve got a modern system and you want to run general-purpose computing tasks, then AMD or Intel integrated graphics will be fine.
If you want to play games, run photo-editing applications, stream games or create a video, you’ll need a discrete graphics card. Work applications like Adobe Photoshop or InDesign will only need a relatively modest card, but you’ll need to spend big to get a graphics card that’s capable of gaming at 4K.
Different Types of Screen
It doesn’t just pay to become familiar with the basic concepts of 4K – it’s worth a deeper dive into the technology in order to truly understand these future-proofed panels.
4K monitors use one of three kinds of screen technology: IPS, VA or TN. They’ve all got different strengths and weaknesses, which mean they’re suited to different tasks.
One of the most popular technologies is IPS. It stands for In-Plane Switching, and these screens generally have the best color accuracy and depth – because they’re better at managing and manipulating light.
They have solid response times, too, because their crystals don’t have to do as much movement, and they also tend to have the best viewing angles around.
The superb color accuracy, great viewing angles and reasonable contrast make IPS panels great all-rounders. They’re also particularly good for color-sensitive work applications.
However, IPS screens suffer when it comes to response times and refresh rates, which means keen gamers and esports players will want to look elsewhere – any panel with sluggish performance here means a competitive disadvantage.
Gamers should turn to TN screens, which have the best response times on the market. The best esports players use TN panels because they need to get wins in scenarios where milliseconds matter.
However, TN screens don’t have brilliant color accuracy or contrast, and their viewing angles often aren’t good. But if you’re sat in front of a screen and playing competitively, those attributes don’t matter.
The third type of technology used in 4K panels is called VA. These panels tend to sit between IPS and TN when it comes to their common attributes. They’ve usually got reasonable color accuracy and viewing angles, and its mechanism blocks light physically – so it’ll often have better contrast than either rival.
Response times are fine, colors are solid, and VA’s class-leading contrast mean these panels are great for movies and multimedia.
Backlight Types Explained
Here is Linus explaining different backlight types in more detail, if you want to know more:
These three-panel types make up the majority of today’s 4K screens – but, underneath, they’re all made of LCDs.
LCD stands for Liquid Crystal Display. These displays are built from a layer of crystals that are manipulated by tiny bursts of electricity. The layer sits in front of a backlight, and the minute movements alter the light passing through, therefore creating different results.
The backlight and Liquid Crystal movements combine, and the light also passes through a couple of filters. The adjustments to the crystals and the properties of the filters create different kinds of screen – including the three types we’ve already described.
LCD isn’t the only option, though. OLED screens have far better response times than any LED panel because they don’t work by physically moving crystals. Instead, OLED panels don’t have any moving parts, which makes them far quicker. They also create their own light, which makes them slimmer and more frugal than conventional LCD screens.
OLED panels are expensive, though, so they’re only usually found in high-end TVs, expensive laptops, and the best smartphones. They’ve barely begun to appear in 4K monitors, but they’re still notoriously expensive – so we look forward to prices coming down in 2018.
Key Technical Attributes to consider
You’ll want to consider the brightness and contrast levels when you buy a 4K screen. If you’re going to be using the screen under bright office lights then you’ll want something with a higher brightness level – something like 200cd/m2 should be plenty.
And, while most panels deliver contrast levels around 1000:1, it’s worth aiming for as high a figure as possible. A better contrast will mean deeper dark shades, more intense light colors, and more varied and subtle shades across the whole range.
Lower contrast means poorer colors at those light and dark extremes and banding elsewhere, which means every possible use for this screen will suffer.
Consider the Colour Space, too, especially if you need a monitor for color-sensitive work applications, like photo editing or print design.
The Colour Space refers to the range of colors that a monitor can display. Two of the most common Colour Spaces are sRGB and Adobe RGB. The former is the most common, and it guarantees that a screen will adhere to the same color palette used on the vast majority of other panels – like other screens, TVs, smartphones, and tablets. That’s important because it means that content will look consistent.
Adobe RGB is a wider Colour Space that can display more shades. It’s produced for people who use Adobe’s applications for professional usage, and it’s less common – but it’s crucial if you need accurate, standardized colors for work.
Every screen will display a certain percentage of its Colour Space. A higher figure is better because it means a panel will be able to produce more colors. Generally, if you find a screen that displays more than 90% of the sRGB Colour Space, that’ll be fine for gaming, movies and most work.
If you need a 4K screen that displays 100% of the Adobe RGB Colour Space, expect to pay more – a high-quality 100% Adobe RGB screen can cost more than $500 – or more than double that amount.
There are other attributes to examine if you need a screen for professional purposes. Many panels are calibrated before they leave the factory, which means they will have already been set up to deliver the best possible color.
And, finally, consider the physical size of your new screen. We’d recommend a 4K screen with a diagonal measurement of at least 27in – anything smaller and you won’t notice the increased sharpness of those extra pixels.
Beyond that 27in figure, it’s down to personal preference, the amount of room you’ve got on your desk – and your budget.
The current crop of 4K panels range from that 27in diagonal to 40in and beyond, with 32in screens proving to be a popular sweet-spot. And, of course, TVs are bigger still.
Play the Game
Other technical considerations are important for gamers and competitive esports players.
Input lag refers to the time between a mouse movement being executed and that action appearing on the screen. The time difference is tiny, which means input lag is measured in milliseconds – but those miniscule gaps can still make a difference when you’re playing competitively.
For most people, input lag won’t be an issue. But if you’re an FPS or esports gamer, you’ll want a screen with an input lag that hits 20ms or less – the lower the better.
Similarly, enthusiastic gamers will need a good refresh rate. This term refers the speed at which the image updates. Most consumer monitors have a refresh rate of 60Hz, which means the screen refreshes 60 times/second.
A 60Hz screen will be fine for gaming, movies, and work. However, a new breed of screen ramps this figure up to deliver better gaming performance.
For example, 4K screens and TVs with 120Hz refresh rates have appeared. These panels can display 120 frames per second rather than 60, which means games will appear smoother. You’ll get better responsiveness from your mouse, too, which can report thousands of times to your PC every second – so the more times the screen refreshes, the better for precise pointing.
A high refresh rate is a boon for competitive gamers, but it also means you’ll need a monster PC – modern graphics cards struggle to run many games at 4K, and doubling the refresh rate to 120Hz puts a greater strain on a graphics chip because a game has to run beyond 100fps to make the monitor worthwhile.
In the near future, we’ll see graphics cards that are more adept at handling high-end games at these framerates, which will drive more 120Hz monitors and lower prices in 2018.
Once 120Hz 4K screens are commonplace, we’ll start to see 144Hz screens – the next step up, and a move that’s already been adopted at lower resolutions. It’s a sensible next stage that provides, even more, gaming smoothness.
Once that’s been introduced, we’ll likely see 240Hz 4K screens – a refresh rate that’s already found at smaller resolutions and is already popular with esports gamers. These are all developments that should take place in 2018 and further into 2019.
Remember, though, that as refresh rates get higher you’ll see less obvious improvement. These diminishing returns mean only the most serious gamers should invest in one of these screens when they eventually arrive.
Response times are linked to Refresh Rates. A monitor’s response time refers to the time it takes for each individual pixel to change its color, and it’s measured in milliseconds.
Only keen gamers need to pay attention – those folks will want to look for a screen with a 2ms response time or better, and TN panels tend to offer the best speed. Most monitors offer a 5ms response time, which is fine for most players.
Everything But the Kitchen Sync
The increase in high refresh rates has to lead to AMD and Nvidia developing their own technologies.
That matching means that games run as smoothly as possible, because the monitor isn’t left waiting for new frames from the graphics card, and the graphics card isn’t delivering frames faster than the monitor can render them.
It’s a natural evolution of a high refresh rate because a 120Hz screen can deliver 120fps gaming – but without matching the monitor’s screen refreshes to the graphics card output.
These methods are the best way to get smooth gaming, and they’re available on various 4K panels. Most screens with AMD FreeSync or Nvidia G-Sync have a peak refresh rate of 60Hz, and you’ll need to make sure that you have a graphics card that’s powerful enough to play 4K games at 60fps – otherwise, you’re just wasting your money.
On the Nvidia side of things, that generally means you’ll need a GTX 1080 at least – but a GTX 1080 Ti, or even two GTX 1080 cards, would be better. On Nvidia, expect to pay at least $500 for a 4K-capable graphics card.
On AMD’s side, the bare minimum would be a Radeon RX 580, but a Radeon RX Vega 64 would be better. Expect to pay around $300 for the entry-level RX 580, but more than $700 for a Vega 64 card.
You’ll also need to make sure you’ve got a good processor. Anything from the Intel Core i5 or Core i7 ranges from the last couple of years will be fine – if you have a chip with 2013’s Haswell architecture, or anything newer, you’ll be fine.
On the AMD side, you’re really better off with one of the more recent Zen or Threadripper processors, although quad-core FX-branded chips will do the job as well.
4K on Consoles
PCs have been running games at 4K for a couple of years, but we’re at a point where the latest consoles are churning out graphics at 4K too.
The Xbox One X beefs up Microsoft’s hardware with more transistors and faster clock speeds in order to render some new games at 4K and deliver upgrades to existing titles – some games see improved graphics and framerates, while others have better upscaling to run at resolutions between their original figures and true 4K.
Sony’s PS4 Pro doesn’t have quite as large a leap when it comes to pure hardware, which means that most games benefit from graphical improvements and upscaling rather than true 4K – but, on the plus side, it’s cheaper than the Xbox.
The situation with both of these consoles is murky because games use a variety of techniques to either run at proper 4K or mimic 4K graphics through clever upscaling – it’s not as simple as the PC, where games will just run at true 4K if that’s selected.
With 4K TVs getting cheaper all the time, though, it’s an effective way to take your gaming way beyond the entry-level consoles – and even if you don’t always get true 4K, you’ll always get noticeable improvements.
We’ve covered the main technical attributes of 4K, but there’s plenty more to consider depending on exactly what you want out of your new screen.
Every monitor will have ergonomic considerations. Some will have sturdy, stylish stands that look fantastic, but they won’t move. Others will have functional designs with height adjustment, tilting, side-to-side movement – and some can even swing round to be used in Portrait orientation.
Many monitors have speakers, but don’t assume that these will be good enough for gaming or movies – most of the time they’re tinny and underwhelming.
Similarly, don’t be tempted by the various screen modes on modern monitors. Many boasts of different options for different types of game, or for movies and working, but most aren’t very good – they make minor adjustments to the brightness or contrast, or make whole-scale changes that ruin picture quality.
Most monitors look their best when they’re out of the box, or with minor, manual adjustments. We’d stick with those rather than use any of the pre-set options.
If you do want to make any adjustments, you’ll need to dive into the On-Screen Display. Check what control method is used before you buy: if you’re going to be annoyed by touchscreen controls, or a joystick, you’ll want to know about it.
Make sure that you’ve got the right ports on your new monitor and your existing PC, too. It’s no good buying a 4K screen that’s only got DisplayPort if your system doesn’t have that connection, for instance.
Check what other ports your monitor has. Some 4K panels have audio jacks for easier headphone use or USB ports for simple peripheral connectivity.
Many 4K screens are compatible with accessories, too. Lots of 4K screens can be attached to walls with sturdy mounts, and desk clamps can be used to build multi-monitor setups.
Many desk clamps and mounts use the VESA specification, which introduces standardized measurements – so if your stand and monitor are both VESA compatible you can be sure they’ll work together.
The Best 4K Screens for Gaming IMHO
We’ve picked our three of our favorite 4K gaming monitors.
The Asus PB287Q costs $390. It’s a stunning 4K panel that has several key gaming attributes: its 28in diagonal strikes a great balance between size and sharpness, and its 1ms response time makes it perfect for fast-paced esports. That’s because it’s a TN panel, which is the fastest type of LCD screen around.
It runs at 60Hz, which is fine for most types of game, and it has true 10-bit color – which means it can display more than one billion different shades.
It’s got HDMI and DisplayPort connections, and it has the full range of adjustments, which makes it versatile too. It’s an extremely good all-rounder.
The $834 Acer Predator 4K XB271HK is another stunning gaming screen. Its 27in diagonal makes it a little sharper than the Asus, and it’s made with an IPS panel – so it’ll have incredible color accuracy and viewing angles as well as high-quality attributes in most other areas.
It has a stylish black-and-orange stand, and it’s got Nvidia G-Sync that functions at a peak refresh rate of 60Hz – so games can run with perfect smoothness at a maximum framerate of 60fps.
It’s a 10-bit panel, just like the Asus, and it has height adjustment. It also has thin bezels, which make games more absorbing, and it can display 100% of the sRGB color gamut.
Our third gaming choice is the $299 LG 27UD58. This 27in panel has AMD FreeSync at a peak refresh rate of 60Hz – just like the previous screen, that means butter-smooth gaming at a top framerate of 60fps.
It has a solid 250cd/m2 brightness level, a 1000:1 contrast ratio, and a 5ms response time – so while it’s not quite quick enough for esports gamers, it has enough speed to sate everyone else.
The Best 4K Screens for Work
One of our favorite productivity panels is the LG 32UD99-W. It costs a mighty $900, but you get a lot for your money: it’s IPS, so you’re going to get world-class color accuracy, and it adheres to several Colour Spaces – including those used in broadcasting and the film industry.
The LG works with separate calibration devices to ensure pitch-perfect accuracy, it’s got a tiny bezel, and it has USB Type-C for data transfer and easy device charging.
It’s got great on-screen controls, top-notch viewing angles, an adjustable stand and a huge peak brightness level of 550cd/m2. It’s clearly one of the best screens available for proper productivity.
We also love the Dell P2715Q. It’s a 27in IPS panel that delivers superb color levels alongside a 350cd/m2 brightness level and 1,000:1 contrast ratio.
This screen has mini and full-size DisplayPort connectors, a USB 3 hub and it hits 99% of the sRGB Colour Space, which makes it ideal for most work tasks. It’s a full 10-bit screen, which means it can render more than a billion different colors, and it has ample adjustment options.
With only 6ms response time, it isn’t particularly quick, but that doesn’t matter as much for work tasks. It costs $450, and this high-quality screen will last for years.
The $600 Philips BDM4350UC is another excellent productivity panel. It’s got a 43in diagonal, so it’s huge, which is a boon for getting up-close to work projects – and it has pairs of HDMI and DisplayPort inputs, which make it very versatile too.
This screen uses IPS technology, which is best for work thanks to its great color accuracy and viewing angles, and it has extra Philips technology ensure brightness and contrast consistency. It’s got USB 3 ports and speakers, too, and it has a VESA attachment so it can be mounted to walls.
The Best 4K Screens for Everyday Use
Sometimes you need a 4K panel that’ll handle work, play and everything else, and a screen like the $600 Acer H277HKSMIPUZ is ideal. This 27in panel has IPS technology, which means you get great colors and viewing angles alongside enough speed to handle movies and the majority of games.
Its brightness measurement of 350cd/m2 ensures it’ll work under bright lights, and it’s got HDMI, DVI and DisplayPort connections – so it’ll work with any kind of PC.
It’s got AMD FreeSync if you’d like to smooth out your gaming, two speakers, a tiny bezel and a smart metallic stand – so it looks the part.
We also like the Samsung U28E590d. It’s a 28in TN screen that’s got the deep black levels to excel with films, and it also has a 1ms response time and a three-year warranty – so it’s good for gaming.
It has a smart silver stand, a modest price of $350 and a 100% sRGB Colour Space measurement, so it’s a true all-rounder.
Our final general-purpose recommendation is the AOC U2879VF. It’s another affordable panel, at $299, and it pairs solid brightness with a 1ms response time. It’s a TN panel with loads of display inputs, so it’ll work with all sorts of computers, and its subtle and smart design ensures it won’t look out of place in a home office or next to a gaming rig.